Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Taking A Break: filming white sharks for Mexican NGO and broadcasters

I will be offline for a few days as I will be returning to Isla Guadalupe aboard the Horizon to film great white sharks for, Televisa SA, and Telemundo. is a California- and Mexico-based ocean conservation group that tackles a wide variety of ocean conservation issues but with a decidedly Spanish-speaking emphasis. That gets them involved in issues ranging from Baja, Mexico throughout Latin America and anywhere worldwide where a Spanish-speaking perspective can be effective. Televisa SA is one of Mexico's largest broadcasters and Telemundo services Hispanic U.S. and Mexican communities and all through Latin America. is working with these broadcasters to promote stories about shark conservation and shark ecotourism. While there is not a major market for shark fins in Latin America, there are commercial operations that engage in shark finning to meet Asian demand. Within their borders, there is primarily a limited demand for shark meat and then there is the greater lost tourism dollars from shark ecotourism when compared to the value of a dead shark. Along the coast of Baja, juvenile white sharks are caught for their meat and teeth; because of the white shark's slow rate of reproduction, this can have a profound impact on overall populations.

Whether or not a country is a major consumer of shark products, it's important that everyone understands the critical and necessary role that sharks play as ocean predators and scavengers. The oceans can't do without them.

The Reef Tank: conservation blogging for the aquarist

The Reef Tank, a community blog site and information resource for aquarists, was brought to my attention by Ava, the site's moderator. I am always very cautionary about home aquaria: where the flora and fauna are sourced, including seaweeds and exotic fish that could potentially be invasive species if not handled properly; or whether corals are being imported illegally.

But responsible, conservation-minded aquaria can serve an educational purpose and this web site seems to be pointed in the right direction by staying on top of major ocean conservation issues. The site is well-structured with various categories of postings ranging from ocean acidification to marine species to water conservation. A very impressive breadth of topics are covered here.

Even if you are not an aquaria hobbyist, it's definitely worth checking out. It's always interesting to see another group's perspective and what issues catch their attention. Academics, scientists, non-profit staff - each are attracted to different types or levels of information, detail, points of view. It's always good to try to look at the whole picture once in a while, particularly if you are involved in an activity that is trying to reach the widest possible audience.

And isn't that what we're trying to do, if we want to save the planet?

Check out the Reef Tank blog and web site.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ocean Acidification: getting the word out in ads and film

Ocean Acidification: a new piece of jargon in the ocean conservation vernacular but potentially a very big one. Many of you may already be aware of its implications; the increase in CO2 absorbed by the oceans producing everything from weakened shells to the overall destruction of corals, all due to an upset in the ocean's balance of calcium.

This is a relatively new discovery and many decision-makers are, for the most part, in the dark regarding the issue. is taking a step to correct that with an advertisement to run in Energy and Environment Daily, a publication read by many in the energy policy arena.

But it's been a tough year for non-profits and Oceana is in need of outside funding to cover the cost of running the ad. If you can make a contribution, click on this link to learn more.

"Congress needs to address ocean acidification now. The oceans have absorbed 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide since the Industrial Revolution and scientists predict a mass extinction of corals by the middle to end of this century - including a collapse of the world's largest barrier reef systems in Australia and Belize.

Help Protect Corals. Help put ocean acidification on Congress's agenda by supporting a new ad targeted at Congress.

More acidic oceans threaten the one-quarter of marine life that depends on coral reefs for food and shelter, as well as all animals that depend on carbonate to build their shells and skeletons, like corals, pteropods, and shellfish like oysters.

Help Oceana Advocacy Resources raise $5,000 by September 1 to run the new "This is Your Ocean on Acid" ad and to get this issue before Congress today.

The ad will run in Energy and Environment Daily, a news source read by thousands of the major players in energy policy in the U.S. and abroad, including congressional and federal agency leaders. We need to shift energy policy away from fossil fuels and mitigate the effects of ocean acidification now if we want coral reefs and other carbonate-dependent marine life to survive.

Did you know that the oceans are more acidic than they have been in 800,000 years and this change occurred one-hundred-times faster than ever before? There has been no time for marine life to adapt and if corals and shellfish disappear, it will have repercussions for sharks, sea turtles, marine mammals and many other animals that depend on them."

Also, whether you are well-versed or new to the issue of ocean acidification, check out the documentary A Sea Change, which has been playing in select theaters recently. Very enlightening and informative.

Ethical Debate: endangered species vs. ecosystems

Fellow blogger, David from WhySharksMatter, had an interesting post that I thought I would pass along: the ethical dilemma that develops when endangered species are re-located, between saving the species and protecting the ecosystem. Does the re-located endangered species become an invasive species? Does its re-location produce adverse effects in its new environment.

This ties in to the post I put up recently regarding the Desert Tortoise, where re-located tortoises were not necessarily impacting the new environment; rather the tortoises themselves were become victims of predators in their new environment. How can we avoid our "solutions" becoming part of the "problem"?

Here's David's post:

Ethical debate: endangered species vs. ecosystems
2009 August 23
by whysharksmatter

It’s been a long time since our last ethical debate, but I think you’ll all like this one.

At two different conferences I attended this summer, I heard about a hot new topic in the conservation movement. Biologists studying a variety of organisms, from plants to turtles, are debating this all over the world as we speak.

This new conservation technique is sometimes called “assisted migration”, “managed relocation”, and a variety of other names. Regardless of what you call it, the principle is the same. When an endangered species’ habitat is threatened, scientists simply round up all the members of that species that they can find and move them to a similar habitat elsewhere. Here’s the catch… the places where the endangered species are moved to are often NOT part of those species original range. In other words, we are intentionally introducing invasive species!

Though not necessarily always the case, for the sake of this ethical debate let’s assume that the following two statements are true.

1) Moving an endangered species to a new habitat WILL help the endangered species to survive.

2) Introducing new species to a habitat WILL disrupt the ecosystem of that habitat.

The ethical debate here is straightforward… is it morally right to save an endangered species by disrupting another ecosystem with an invasive species?

It is worth noting that as we are debating this on an academic level, it IS happening. Though there are many examples, one hits close to home. A conservation group known as the “Torreya Guardians” is taking what they call “the world’s most endangered conifer tree” and moving it from Florida… to the very forest where Andrew and I spent many happy weeks hiking while at Duke.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Coral Reefs Around the World: an extensive report & an important proposal - what you can do

As many of you know, the Earth's coral reefs have been showing serious signs of damage from pollution, temperature change, acidification, and destructive fishing techniques. It seems no coral reef on the planet has been immune from some level of impact.

The South Pacific contains some of the richest marine environments, particularly an area known as the "Coral Triangle" that includes Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Timor Leste. While the Coral Triangle only represents 1% of the earth's surface, it includes 30% of the world's reefs, 76% of the reef building coral species, and 30% of the coral reef fish species.

And according to The Coral Triangle and Climate Change: Ecosystems, People and Societies at Risk, a report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the University of Queensland, Australia, the Coral Triangle is gravely at risk - with major consequences not only for the marine environment but for the people who live and depend on the natural resources that benefit from the reef ecosystem.

This is an extensive and thorough report (229 pages) and I have only started to get into it. It's actually a compilation and analysis of over 300 published scientific studies involving biology, economics and fisheries science, so the conclusions are pretty solid. It basically puts forward two scenarios: one is the bleaker scenario, where nothing is adequately done and the coral reefs of the Coral Triangle are expected to disappear by the end of the century. This would bring about a major collapse of the regional coastal environment's ability to feed the population. Up to 100 million people would suffer loss of livelihoods, increased poverty, loss of food security, and there would be a major migration of people away from the coast, either moving into tighter, more over-populated communities inland or migrating to neighboring countries like Australia or New Zealand, further taxing the resources of those countries. In all, a pretty dire scenario of direct impacts on mankind if we choose to ignore the fate of this vital component of a healthy marine ecosystem.

The other scenario, however, is a more promising one, avoiding the worst-case scenario, if governments and commerce can wake up to the seriousness of the issue and respond by controlling CO2 emissions, provide better management of fisheries, and control pollution and declining coastal water quality. There would still be a level of coral loss, a rise in sea level, and increased storm and drought activity - but if we act now, it can be brought under manageable levels and even improve over time.

So, there's still time, but the clock is ticking and so action must be taken now rather than later. Click here to download the entire report.

On the other side of globe, deep water corals along the southeast coast of the U.S., from North Carolina to Florida, are at risk from destructive fishing techniques. Commercial deep-water fishing techniques include longlines and trawls the rake across the bottom, scraping up everything in its path - including delicate corals. And this isn't a gentle little rub; these nets can lift 18-ton rocks and pieces of reef right off the bottom. (Watch these techniques at work and you'll think twice about ordering that shrimp cocktail.)

Oceana is initiating a campaign to garner support for a proposed regulation by NOAA to protect as much as 23,000 square miles of deep coral reef area. Click here to learn more about what you can do.

Friday, August 21, 2009

White Sharks at the CA Capitol: a quick follow-up

Back home and here's a follow up to the Sacramento Assembly screening/presentation of Island of the Great White Shark.

It was a well-attended event and the staff for both Assemblymembers Fletcher and Huffman did a great job in providing the equipment and hand-out materials for the event, held in one of the stately committee conference rooms.

Dr. Klimley of UC Davis had an opportunity to stress the importance of continued research and introduced several of his researcher/grad students who are involved in projects ranging from San Francisco Bay to the Galapagos Islands.

Greg Grivetto of Horizon Charters and I spoke of the importance of co-operation between California and Mexico regarding ongoing eco-tourism and research - the two often work hand in hand. And I emphasized to the elected officials in attendance the need for appreciating the reality that, despite conservation and fishery management laws within defined state, federal or international waters, many sea animals, including sharks, don't pay attention to these man-made boundaries and that what happens to a species in one area of the world could have profound impacts on other regions, thereby impacting protected species, fishery management, and even tourism economies.

In the end, it's one planet, one big ocean, and we all need to work together. Following the screening/presentation at the California Capitol, we'll be working on a diplomatic meeting between California and Mexico officials with perhaps a side trip to Isla Guadalupe, so hopefully more news to come in the future.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

White Shark Film To Screen At State Capitol: CA Assembly invited to "Island of the Great White Shark"

Press Release issued today:




Invited legislators will see accurate portrayal of vital ocean

predator and hear discussion of its importance to the state

Sacramento, California, August 18, 2009 – California Assemblymembers Nathan Fletcher (R, 75th Assembly District) and Jared Huffman (D, 6th Assembly District) will be sponsoring a special screening/discussion of RTSea Productions’ Island of the Great White Shark for invited members of the State Assembly and Senate on Wednesday August 19, 2009 at the State Capitol. The award-winning documentary film is a comprehensive look at the great white sharks of Isla Guadalupe, Baja, exploring the true nature of these critically important animals and the ongoing scientific research intended to secure their survival. Following the screening, RTSea filmmaker Richard Theiss, world-renown shark expert Dr. Peter Klimley from UC Davis, and eco-tourism operator Greg Grivetto from Horizon Charters, will discuss and field questions about the film, the important conservation and eco-tourism issues facing these ocean predators, and what the future of these animals means to California.

“These are absolutely magnificent creatures living on a razor’s edge of possible extinction. And there are some very dedicated people working tirelessly to prevent that. This is a story that needed to be told because their fate can have an impact on California, ranging from tourism and fishery economies to fragile marine ecosystems,” says Richard Theiss, RTSea Productions, executive producer and cinematographer.

Theiss has filmed the great white sharks that migrate in the fall to Isla Guadalupe for over five years. During that time, he not only completed the documentary, Island of the Great White Shark, but also became aware of the plight of these ocean predators and how their future is tied to environmental, conservation, and tourism issues between both California and Mexico. Relying on assistance from Dominique Cano-Stoco, Associate Director of Government Relations, UC San Diego, initial contact with several California legislators proved there was positive interest regarding the issues, which has led to Assemblymembers Fletcher and Huffman taking an active role in arranging this screening/discussion in addition to proposing other measures.

“Of all the animals in our planet, sharks are among the most recognizable, yet they remain remarkably misunderstood. Island of the Great White Sharks packages a message of science education and ocean conservation inside quality entertainment and cinematography. As an outdoorsman and as a surfer in particular, I appreciate that this film shows the truth—that sharks are critical players in maintaining balance in our marine ecosystems. The cause of conservation is important, and I am happy to use this event to encourage continued learning about these iconic creatures and smart steps to protect their place in our world,” said Assemblymember Nathan Fletcher.

"This film illustrates the importance of international cooperation in wildlife conservation, including the need for better understanding and appreciation of the vital role this unique species plays in the ocean ecosystem. Wildlife conservation and eco-tourism are also major contributors to California's economy, and for that and many other reasons deserve our support and encouragement, said Assemblymember Jared Huffman."

Following on the hype and hysteria of Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week television programming, this event plans to present the facts regarding a critically important and highly misunderstood shark. The film highlights the value of shark eco-tourism and the importance of conservation, while the discussion will bring out the need for cooperation between California and Mexico’s regulatory agencies involved with eco-tourism, research, wildlife conservation and protection of threatened species.

The screening and follow up discussion will take place in Room 126 of the State Capitol from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Those wishing to attend or to arrange interviews with the participants should contact Heather Koszka in Assemblyman Fletcher’s office at 916-319-2075.

About RTSea Productions

RTSea Productions, based in Irvine, California, ( is dedicated to capturing nature and underwater images that will impress and move viewers to preserve and protect our precious natural resources – above and below the waves. RTSea has provided footage for National Geographic, Discovery, Animal Planet, Google Earth, Aquarium of the Pacific, and others.

# # #

Sea Jelly Invasion: Japan's next monster movie...for real

Japanese fishermen working the Sea of Japan are preparing for what has been called "a huge jellyfish typhoon." Swarms of the giant Nomura sea jelly, which can reach six feet in width, have been sighted. They first appeared in large numbers in 2005, poisoning the fish being caught as they were hauled up together in nets. The problem was so severe that salmon fishermen would not go out to sea and lost up to 80% of their income.

While sea jellies can congregate in large numbers normally, the increasing size and frequency of these aggregations is of major concern to fishermen, public officials (public safety), and researchers.

Researchers at the University of Queensland, Australia, reporting in Trends in Ecology and Environment, have theorized that these aggregations can well be due to human activities. Fertilizer runoff can add excessive nutrients which negatively impact many fish species but can allow sea jellies to flourish because of the associated increase in phytoplankton (a primary food source). Then the die off of the phytoplankton blooms produce decomposition that increases bacteria, causing a reduction in oxygen - again impacting fish but sea jellies are better able to survive in low oxygen environments.

Overfishing also can lead to increased sea jelly aggregations. There have been documented cases of sea jelly blooms when fish such as sardines and anchovies, which feed on the same food sources as sea jellies, are overfished, thereby upsetting the balance of food source competition that normally controls species populations. This has occurred in as disparate areas as off the coast of Nambia in Africa to the Black and Caspian Seas.

And finally, sea jelly larvae can be transported in the ballast water of large ships and, as an invasive species, can take hold in new marine ecosystems where plankton-eating fish are being commercially caught in large numbers, providing the sea jelly with a foothold to grow in numbers.

Increasing sea jelly populations can reach a "tipping point" where they overwhelm the ability of predators to control their numbers, while at the same time feeding on the fish eggs and larvae of those very same predators. When that happens, human management of the situation is made extremely difficult. Researchers are recommending that prevention - controlling runoff, avoiding overfishing, better methods for controlling invasive species - would be a better long-term strategy than eradication.

Monday, August 17, 2009

U.S. Point Man for Global Warming: there's a scientist in the White House

Pop quiz: Who is the current U.S. Secretary of the Department of Energy? Yeah, I couldn't remember either. Shame on the both of us.

It's Steven Chu. And what makes him so note-worthy is that besides being a Nobel Prize winner for physics, he is a true scientist in the political arena (as opposed to a politician in the science arena, whose eyes glaze over when you talk data) who understands that the most important issue facing the nation today is the establishment of a forward-thinking energy policy that recognizes the global warming threat but also recognizes how to effectively and realistically solve it.

There is an interesting profile in this week's TIME magazine on Secretary Chu. He just recently returned from a trip to China where he laid out the facts for the Chinese scientists at Tsinghua University, the "MIT of China." While the growth of China has placed it near the top of world CO2 emitters, there also seems to be a greater desire to deal with it than is found in the U.S.

"He acknowledged that the developed nations that made the mess can't tell the developing nations not to develop, but he also warned that China is on track to emit more carbon in the next three decades than the U.S. has emitted in its history; that business as usual would intensify floods, droughts and heat waves in both countries; that greenhouse gases respect no borders.

[Americans] ranked global warming last in a national survey of 20 top priorities; in a global poll, only 44% of them wanted action to be taken on the issue, vs. 94% of Chinese."

Secretary Chu seems to be the right man for the job but he is strapped with a formidable task: getting Americans to recognize the significance of climate change, what can and should be done about it; and realizing that it is a long-term strategy, perhaps a painful one in the short-term. But it must be dealt with and it will be science and technology that will ultimately provide the answers with the help of the political structure - not the other way around.

Read the
entire article in TIME.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Giant Kelp: preserving a cornerstone of California's marine ecosystem

A dive buddy who I have not seen in many years was vacationing with his family on the west coast and we hooked up this past Thursday to do a day of diving at Anacapa Island, the southernmost island in the northern Channel Islands group. He had not been diving the Channel Islands since he moved back east some 14 years ago, so it was going to be interesting to see and hear his reaction to being back in the ol' stomping grounds where we had logged many a dive.

Conditions were typical for this time of year: a little overcast and the water was it's usual summer green tinge with about 20 feet of visibility. Not bad since we were going to be spending most of our time cruising through the kelp.

Giant kelp forms one of the foundations of California marine ecosystems, providing food and shelter for a variety of animals from its root-like holdfast structure right up to the canopy that is formed when the stalks reach the surface and continue to grow. At its healthiest, a field of giant kelp is like a dark mountain forest; gliding between the stalks is like flying past aged timbers.

California's kelp forests have suffered over the years and the fields are not quite as robust as they were, say, 20 years ago. With kelp being very sensitive to warmer temperatures (actually dying off when the water exceeds 70 degrees for any sustained period of time), the forests have felt the impact of seasonal El Nino warm water currents, warmer summers and milder winters, and pollution. Also, in some areas, with the reduction of certain gamefish that feed on urchins (which in turn feed on kelp), the increase in the population of these spiny echinoderms has wiped out entire kelp beds. There are several organizations and ongoing projects involved in replanting kelp and, since kelp can grow amazingly fast given the right conditions, these replanting efforts hold great promise in bringing back kelp forests to their former glory as an oasis that attracts sealife of all kinds. But it all hinges on those "right conditions" of clean water and cooler temperatures.

There may not be much that we can do about seasonal temperature changes like El Nino currents (although some scientists believe that the duration or severity of these weather patterns are effected by the overall climate change issue), but we can certainly do something about the impacts of pollution, CO2 emissions, and over-fishing that contribute to less than ideal conditions for the kelp forests.

My dive buddy and his daughter had a great time diving; he fell right back into his old ways of peeking under every rock outcropping or crevice with his light, to see what might be making a home there. We had one large and curious male sheephead follow us around, and on another dive we were playfully bombarded by sea lions from a local rookery. But he did notice a lack of fish and other sea critters he remembered from past dives. And I couldn't argue with him: things have changed.

Let's hope that we - the consumers, the businessmen, and the decision-makers - take ocean conservation seriously and act swiftly and responsively. Otherwise, we will be left with only memories and maybe what we find on display in aquariums and museums.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tiger Shark in Long Beach, CA: Aquarium of the Pacific has a new predator

While many aquariums across the country have healthy co-working relationships when it comes to animal care, exchanging animals, or simply keeping up with what's new, there is a bit of competitive rivalry that fuels their desire to distinguish one institution from another. The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA, where I had offered my services as a dive team leader for over 8 years, has had several milestones to distinguish itself: first successful breeding of Leafy Seadragons, successful surgery and rehabilitation on a Sawfish's broken saw, a Bull Shark on public display, and many more.

They are adding one more to that list, with one of the few Tiger Sharks to be on display in North America. Now, I had known for a while that the Aquarium had a tiger shark in holding, but was sworn to secrecy by my friend, Steve Blair, assistant curator and featured in my documentary, Island of the Great White Shark. New animals at the Aquarium go through an obligatory quarantine period and a ground-breaking specimen like a tiger shark would get special attention to insure that it is feeding and behaving normally.

As a recent article in the Los Angeles Times pointed out, getting the animal to that predictable state can be challenging. And then acclimating the animal with the rest of the animals in the exhibit - in this case, the Aquarium's Shark Lagoon exhibit where there are sand tigers, black tip reef, white tip, sand bar, nurse, and zebra sharks, not to mention large rays and a sawfish - can require a careful step by step process.

Even though a tiger shark would represent a major "big cheese" in the exhibit, there is equal if not greater concern regarding the established animals picking on or harassing their new neighbor. Once the pecking order is established then tables might turn and it becomes necessary to watch that larger or more dominant sharks, no matter how new, may begin to assert themselves.

The tiger shark is an absolutely gorgeous animal, particularly with younger specimens where the "tiger stripes" are so prominent. I have had the opportunity to see these animals in the wild and they are indeed a wonderful example of oceanic beauty and grace. Let's wish the Aquarium of the Pacific well and hope that having this particular animal on display - one considered to be a member of the four most dangerous sharks - will provide an opportunity for visitors to see and better appreciate a critically important ocean predator.

Read Los Angeles Times article. Visit Aquarium of the Pacific web site.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

World Population: putting the numbers in perspective

A good friend of mine sent me some statistics that were compiled as part of a study by the University of Wisconsin - Green Bay. The numbers put our world population in a somewhat easier perspective so that we can contemplate many of the social issues facing mankind.

But it also struck me as to how these numbers highlight the importance of how we manage or natural resources - from water to agriculture/aquaculture to fossil fuels and the resulting CO2 damage. And it points to that 800-pound gorilla in the room: our growing worldwide population that is expected to add another 3 billion people in only the next 30 to 40 years.

If the World were 100 PEOPLE:
50 would be female
50 would be male

20 would be children
There would be 80 adults,
14 of whom would be 65 and older

There would be:
61 Asians
12 Europeans
13 Africans
14 people from the Western Hemisphere

There would be:
31 Christians
21 Muslims
14 Hindus
6 Buddhists
12 people who believe in other religions
16 people who not be aligned with a religion

17 would speak Chinese
8 would speak Hindustani
8 would speak English
7 would speak Spanish
4 would speak Arabic
4 would speak Russian
52 would speak other languages

82 would be able to read and write; 18 would not

1 would have a college education
1 would own a computer

75 people would have some supply of food and a place to
shelter them from the wind and the rain, but 25 would not

1 would be dying of starvation
17 would be undernourished
15 would be overweight

83 would have access to safe drinking water
17 people would have no clean, safe water to drink

California Desert Tortoise: under the gun of the U.S. Army

The US military does not exactly have a sterling record when it comes to balancing the concerns of military training and wildlife conservation issues. The controversy over Navy sonar tests and the effects on ocean mammals is still ongoing. And we also have one brewing in California involving the endangered desert tortoise.

The Army wishes to expand its tank training operations in the Mojave desert outside of Ft. Irwin and this encroaches on the federally designated critical habitat for the desert tortoise, a reptile technically listed as threatened by the IUCN. In 2008, under the previous administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granted permission to move 650 tortoises as part of a phase approach; the total number to be moved was to be 2000.

So far, the results have not been promising for the tortoise as many have died from predation by coyotes. Nature establishes habitat boundaries in several ways: sometimes through restricting vegetation/food sources, sometimes through geological limits - like temperature ranges, and sometimes through bio-dispersion based on predation. Move an animal out of its normal locale and anyone of these or other factors can have disastrous effects.

While the results of the first phase have not been all together successful, the Army is still pushing ahead with their plan. But they are meeting resistance from several conservation organizations, including the Center for Biological Diversity - that perennial environmental watchdog that seems unafraid to take government agencies to task in the courts.

One of the oldest residents in California is faced with what could be a fatal eviction for the sake of developing more deadly artillery. You can read more about this in the Los Angeles Times and at the Center for Biological Diversity, which is running both a public awareness campaign and a legal battle.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Wisdom Wall: a source of encourgement for conservationists

I received a comment to yesterday's post from Jason at an interesting blog site called "The Wisdom Wall."

As conservationists, we often can be beset by frustration and discouragement as we continue to hear one piece of environmental bad news after another. So a little uplift and source of encouragement is always a good thing. It pumps you up and gets you prepared to carry on with the good fight.

So take a look at "The Wisdom Wall" when you get a chance. It's an interesting change of pace. Click here or scroll down my list of links.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Shrinking Glaciers: new USGS report covering 50 years

People who have heard me talk about climate change and the need for scientific data to be better communicated to the general public, have also heard my position that global warming would not be such a hotly debated issue if people were aware of the many years of data that exist on the subject.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) just issued a report on the status of North American glaciers based on 50 years of accumulated data. And the news is not good. The glaciers that were studied in Washington and Alaska have receded by 15% to as much as 50% and the shrinkage has been dramatically accelerating in the past 20 years.

"By having a 50-year record, you can look over what's going on, look over the meteorological, climatological record, and really get an idea of what's going on in the mountains," said Edward Josberger, a scientist with the USGS Washington Water Science Center in Tacoma, Wash., who has worked for a decade on the study. "Climate change effects are starting to become more and more noticeable," he added, "and this is one of the effects that's being displayed."

Shrinking glaciers have a direct effect on water runoff and overall drier conditions in the region and these can be felt on the population in the form of lower crop yields and reduced water supplies. Scientists are having to continually readjust computer projection models regarding the effects of climate change as more and more data indicates the effects are accelerating.

The USGS report concluded that, while changes in ocean conditions have provided explanations for the shrinking trend in the past, the latest acceleration suggests that rising temperatures are overwhelming those natural cycles.

Surviving Shark Week: a mixed bag of response

Well, the screams have subsided and the water is once again calm as Discovery Channel's Shark Week comes to a close. Discovery pulled out all the stops this year with their promotional campaigns, using the Internet in particular to target their key markets.

The emphasis was clearly on shark attacks and the fear factor, probably more so than at any time in the 20+ year history of this programming phenomenon. To many, they clearly went over the top with more over-sensationalism and, in some case, fabrication than has been seen ever. And they will probably have substantial ratings numbers to justify their approach unfortunately.

But there has been some important blowback and not just from the diehard shark advocates that you would expect. No, there has been critical reviews from the New York Times, comedian/commentator Stephen Colbert, and others including Advertising Age (an important one because this can represent advertiser sentiment for next season; and advertising pays the bills).

So in the end, Shark Week 2009 could be a mixed bag: high ratings but some strong criticism that can reflect on the Discovery brand. Will there be a change in strategy next year? I suspect not away from the basic fascination/fear factor that the majority of the general public has regarding sharks. But intelligence, conservation, and well-thought out science can still mix with drama and mystery to produce exciting programming for viewers of all ages.

Shark Week certainly does pique interest; Amazon sales of my documentary, Island of the Great White Shark, rose this week as I am sure did many other shark-related DVDs. On another note, on the 19th of this month, there will be a special screening/discussion of Island of the Great White Shark for the California Legislative Assembly - an interesting follow up to Shark Week. There will be more details/press about this event coming soon.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Seafood Sobriquets: tastier names to meet demand

I was reading a Washington Post article today that referenced a report about the state of our commercial fisheries worldwide. As many of you know, they are not in very good shape and predictions abound about the total collapse of many commercial species populations in the next few decades.

The report cited the growth in demand for seafood and how that has caused commercial fishing to steadily migrate from inshore to progressively more open ocean and deeper water. To catch fish at deeper depths required more extensive commercial fishing techniques, like longlines, to meet catch requirements. Unfortunately, those techniques also increased the levels of bycatch.

On a somewhat comical note, it also inspired fishermen to rename certain species which had been discarded or ignored in the past, thereby making them more marketable. Here are a few cited in the article:
  • Slimehead became . . . . . . orange roughy
  • Patagonian toothfish became . . . . . . Chilean sea bass
  • Goosefish became . . . . . . monkfish
  • Catfish is becoming . . . . . . delacata
  • and Whore's eggs (urchin) became . . . . . . uni for the Japanese sushi market
As humorous as these name changes are, it also represents the desperate lengths that commercial fisheries are going to in meeting demand. And that's not so funny.

The one somewhat upbeat note that the report brought up was that over half of the commercial species could be saved from collapse if aggressive action is taken to better manage the fisheries. That includes regulating the size of the catch and better managing the impact of accidental bycatch.

BTW: Growing up in Southern California, I always chuckled over
Aquatic Hygenic Technician . . . . . . pool cleaner.

Read Washington Post article (membership required).

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ocean Trash & Climate Change: California takes some small steps in research and adaptation

A couple of interesting items coming out of my home state of California:

You may have heard of the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, this floating mat of various plastic and trash items that has accumulated due to a convergence of several ocean currents. The "patch" is no small area, estimated to be almost twice the size of the state of Texas and posing an obvious health hazard to sea animals, like sea birds (who mistakenly feed on the debris), or land animals (as fragments of the patch float ashore).

Researchers and students from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, CA are planning a 20-day expedition to better map out this growing reminder of our non-biodegradable product dependence. They will investigate to determine it's size, depth, and make-up. And they will examine its contents in detail to determine whether it is harboring additional pollutants or any invasive species.

What's to be done about the garbage patch in the future remains unclear. Formed by oceanic forces out of our control and residing in open international waters, addressing its removal has been an international and diplomatic challenge. Certainly we know what to do to not add anymore waste to it, but how do we deal with the current situation? Hopefully, an international solution will be reached but it will require considerable technological and logistical resources.

California has often taken stronger environmental positions than those emanating from the federal government, but that is because California lawmakers recognize that the state, both, has a lot to lose if nothing substantial is done, and that the state has been a major contributor over the years to environmental problems ranging from CO2 emissions to overfishing.

In Yosemite National Park, research has been taking place to compare the growth of large-diameter trees. Comparing records dating back to the early 30's, it has been determined that there has been a marked reduction in the density of these trees by as much as 24%.

"Climate change is a likely contributor to these events and should be taken into consideration," said Jan van Wagtendonk, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist. "Warmer conditions increase the length of the summer dry season and decrease the snowpack that provides much of the water for the growing season. A longer summer dry season can also reduce tree growth and vigor, and can reduce trees' ability to resist insects and pathogens."

In addition to the reduced growth, the current condition of the trees exposes them to greater wildfire danger, as there has been a marked shift in some areas from ponderosa pines, a more fire-retardant species, to less fire-retardant white fir and incense cedar.

While California attempts to push some of the boundaries of environmental policy, it apparently recognizes the bureaucratic logjam that impedes new direction in national and international energy and environmental strategies. The California Natural Resource Agency has issued a preliminary report for public review on the subject of climate adaptation - a strategy wherein it is recognized that there will be inevitable climate-related changes and proposes changes in policies and regulations to deal with them. This means preparing for the worst: heat-waves, rising sea levels, flooding, wildlife die-offs, and more.

It is somewhat reassuring to know that a government agency truly recognizes the implications of climate change. But it is unfortunate that this realization comes at a time when, apparently, prevention is not an option regarding some of its impact. This is not to say that we should throw up our hands in defeat. On the contrary, it is reason for us to double our efforts so as to minimize these effects and perhaps even reverse them in the future.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

International White Shark Symposium: mark your calendars for February, 2010

Here's something for 2010 to watch for as it has been some time since the last major white shark symposium:




The Organizing Committee invites participation in the 2010 International White Shark Symposium: Resetting Research and Conservation Objectives.

The symposium will be held 7-10 February at the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel, on Waikiki Beach, Hawaii. Our understanding of this magnificent apex predator has been hindered by its large size and uncommon occurrence.

Through technological advances and sheer perseverance, white sharks are suddenly revealing some aspects of their secret lives. What was once an exceptionally difficult animal to study in the field has now been thoroughly tracked moving between coastal and pelagic habitats. What was once an impossible animal to maintain in captivity has now successfully been displayed in public. These major advances define the purpose of this meeting: a gathering of leading white shark researchers from around the world, to share the latest findings and discuss how they should influence modern research and conservation goals.

Time will be dedicated to round table discussions of important issues, including hotspots, cage diving, modern threats, research ethics and conservation policies. All participants are encouraged to submit manuscripts for what will be an important dedicated book of the proceedings.

Learn more at the symposium's web site (Click here).

Monday, August 3, 2009

Lionfish and Pythons: invasive species paying the ultimate price

Well, I'm back from a very successful trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Hopefully I will have impressed a few listeners before they watch shark television programming that seems to be obsessed with one thing this year: shark attacks.

I caught two interesting news bits on invasive species. The introduction of foreign animal and plant life into an ecosystem can have disastrous effects either on the ecosystem itself - as in the case of invasive seaweeds or predators like the lionfish - or on our man-made infrastructures - like the damage caused to water pipes from freshwater mussels.

1. Speaking of lionfish: their population has been exploding in the warm waters off Florida and the Caribbean, ever since their introduction by aquarists who could no longer care for them at home and released them into the wild. Voracious by nature, the beautiful lionfish was thought to possibly be held in check through predation by larger animals like groupers. While that still may be the case someday, at the moment it's a losing battle. One that has prompted the development of "lionfish tournaments" which have netted as many as 1200+ lionfish in a single event.

2. TIME magazine just reported on a government-sanctioned program to rid the Florida Everglades of exotic Asian pythons - again, introduced into the wild by owners who could no longer manage them at home. These reptiles, like the Burmese python, can reach a length of up to 18 feet and can disrupt the Everglade's predator-prey hierarchy by feeding on everything from small rodents all the way up to the typical apex predator of the Everglades, the alligator. Officials from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation are working with snake experts to round up some of the estimated 150,000 pythons and are considering even issuing bounty hunter permits.

It's a sad price that has to be paid by all invasive species, whether plant or animal, when the result is their wholesale destruction. But the real villain lies with man either through his thoughtlessness, negligence, or perverse need to own exotic animals as pets. And because of it, we must then cover our tracks at the end of a spear or the barrel of a gun.